Propst is out, but Valdosta drama to be continued

(Malcolm Jackson/The New York Times)
(Malcolm Jackson/The New York Times)

Valdosta fired football coach Rush Propst this week, but the drama isn’t over in Winnersville.

After the school board voted 5-3 not to renew Propst’s contact Tuesday night, it was revealed that Valdosta might pay the former football coach, Alan Rodemaker, $800,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Then, there was news of a new coach.

Valdosta superintendent Todd Cason told media later Tuesday that Shelton Felton will run the football program in the interim. If Felton gets the job full-time – and he’s the leading candidate – he would become the first African-American head coach in the school’s more than 100-year history.

The vote not to renew Propst’s contract came 19 days after the Georgia High School Association fined the school $7,500, stripped the football team of its seven 2020 victories, banned it from the 2021 playoffs and declared five players ineligible for any sport at any GHSA school.

ExploreValdosta’s appeal unanimously denied by GHSA

The GHSA alleged that Propst recruited players and sought money from school’s football booster club to facilitate their moves.

Still, Tuesday’s vote was close as three school board members stood behind the controversial but ultra-successful coach. They were Warren Lee, Tyra Howard and Kelisa Brown. They were among the five who voted to oust Rodemaker in January, 2020, despite his winning record and 2016 state title.

Two others who voted against Rodemaker broke ranks in the Propst vote. They are Debra Bell and Liz Shumpard, who voted along with Trey Sherwood, Tad Moseley and Stacy Bush for non-renewal. The board met behind closed doors for an hour, presumably in debate, with many wondering if the same five that forced out Rodemaker would save Propst.

It didn’t happen. The vote came when the regularly scheduled board meeting resumed a little after 10 p.m.

ExploreValdosta fires coach Rush Propst by 5-3 school board vote

Propst declined to resign ahead of the meeting, which suggests that he still liked his chances, or that he believes he’s innocent and that GHSA penalties were unwarranted. He’s not spoken publicly since February except to say he respects the GHSA’s appeals process. Valdosta has one more appeal chance next month before the GHSA’s board of directors.

After the Propst vote, the board moved on Rodemaker. The former coach, now an assistant at Colquitt County, is named in a lawsuit alleging that his dismissal was unfair and racially motivated. The five board members who voted him out are African-American. Rodemaker is white.

Valdosta denies discrimination or any wrongdoing but must weigh the cost of a lingering court fight, paid with its own funds, versus having its insurance settle it and giving closure to what’s been a divisive if not nightmarish past 15 months for the school system, community and football program.

Board member Lee indicated Tuesday that the insurance payout to Rodemaker would be $800,000 but argued against taking that route, reasserting that Rodemaker had no legitimate case. The school board hasn’t decided how to proceed.

What’s next for Propst is unknown. His 31-year record as a head coach in Alabama and Georgia is 302-101 with seven state titles, two at Colquitt County in Moultrie. Fired now by Valdosta and Colquitt County, Propst is not likely to be a Georgia head coach again.

Felton, the acting coach, is well-respected in Georgia, a former top assistant at Colquitt who then as head coach led his alma mater, Crisp County, to a historic Class 3A semifinal finish in 2016. But Felton has seen his troubles, too.

Viewed as a rising star in the college ranks, Felton was fired with cause in January at Tennessee amid the Volunteers’ recruiting scandal that cost coach Jeremy Pruitt his job.

ExploreGHSA releases 2021-22 football schedule

The football team, a Class 6A semifinalist in Propst’s only season, almost certainly would’ve been ranked in the top five in preseason this year, but GHSA’s ban of four rising senior players, including the starting quarterback and all-state wide receiver, is a major blow.

And unless they pull an upset next month at a final GHSA appeals hearing, the Wildcats will miss the playoffs for only the fifth time in 45 years. This is a program whose 932 wins are the most in U.S. history, according to the Georgia high school football historians association, and its 24 state titles the most in Georgia.

Spring practice begins Thursday.

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